Archive for the ‘ Sporting ’ Category

Jumping to conclusions

The reaction to the FIA’s press release today highlights the danger of rushing to digital print:

The WMSC approved the introduction of a new specification engine from 2013, underlining the FIA’s commitment to improving sustainability and addressing the needs of the automotive industry.

Following dialogue with the engine manufacturers and experts in this field, the power units will be four cylinders, 1.6 litre with high pressure gasoline injection up to 500 bar with a maximum of 12,000 rpm.

Many people have alighted on the magic number ‘500 bar’ and rushed to announce that turbo engines will return to F1 with, like, ker-ay-zee boost pressures. Sorry, but that’s not what the sentence says. Look again: high pressure gasoline injection up to 500 bar. That’s not the same as turbocharging.

The introduction of high-pressure common rail fuel injection on diesel cars in recent years has yielded huge improvements in performance, refinement and efficiency. Most road car diesels now run around 1000 bar of injection pressure, but their petrol equivalents are lagging – 200 bar is about as high as it goes at present.

Using Formula 1 as a laboratory for performance and efficiency development makes sense on a number of levels. The sport has to be more relevant to the public at large. It also needs to attract investment from the automotive industry rather than hoping for a financial white knight to charge in from the ether to replace the departed tobacco money and the departing bank money.

Leading research into high-pressure gasoline injection systems could engage not only the established automotive industry, but also the breakthrough car makers in the far east. Turbocharging? It’s been done, luv…

Turbos will be part of the package, but my snouts suggest that the boost pressure will be more modest – in the region of 1.5 bar or lower, around where they were capped last time around. Longevity is more important than before, now that drivers face greater limits on the number of engines they can use over the course of the season.

Don’t underestimate Sergio Perez

You know it’s a funny old world when the winner of GP2, Formula 1’s premier feeder series, is beaten to an actual F1 seat by, er, the bloke he beat to the GP2 title. Welcome, then, to the funny old world of Pastor Maldonado.

In spite of a management contract with Nicolas Todt (if that’s not a VIP ticket to a plum F1 seat, nothing is) and backing from Venezuela’s state oil company, not to mention a high-profile pat on the back from President Chavez himself, Maldonado has failed to secure a seat alongside Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber in 2011. Instead that place will be occupied by 2010 GP2 runner-up Sergio Perez in a move that has been eased by a considerable injection of funds from Telmex, the Mexican telecoms concern.

But exactly how big an injection are we talking about?

It’s perhaps a reflection on the sort of traveller who regularly commutes between London and Shanghai that the British Airways 777 employed for this purpose has a mammoth First/Club section, while Economy occupies about 10 rows down the back. Nevertheless it was in this cupboard-sized vestibule that I found myself sitting next to Perez on the way back from the Chinese Grand Prix a couple of years ago.

Back then, Perez had just kicked off his GP2 Asia campaign with a DNF and a seventh place, hot on the heels of flunking the lead of the British Formula 3 Championship. Still, everyone was talking about his potential, and plenty of people were excited about (and keen to get their hands on) the reputed pot of gold that Telmex brought. This was just as the financial crash was just crashing, but Honda were yet to withdraw from F1 – in fact, Nick Fry and Ross Brawn were sitting several rows ahead, beyond the gilded curtain, in altogether comfier seats.

He wasn’t the most talkative chap, but he owed me a favour. I’d woken him up as they came round with the boxes from the laughably misnamed ‘All Day Deli’. I made the slight tactical error of asking him what had happened in the closing rounds of British F3 (cue a screed of excuses, thankfully lightened by the arrival of some liquid refreshment – diss BA cabin crew if you like, but they’re generous with the vin rouge). I then asked him what on earth he was doing ‘down the back’ of a 12-hour flight when he had a fair bit of sponsor’s wedge behind him – especially when various unimportant persons and hangers-on, such as TV pundits and marketing types, had ‘turned left’.

He replied that it was more important to spend the money that was being disbursed on his behalf wisely, ie on the business of racing, than to swan around like a VIP when he hadn’t earned that status yet.

I was impressed by his attitude. Impressed by his raw pace during races, too, although his results have been patchy. For the latter reason you may read some hemming and hawing from the kind of pundits who do their research on Wikipedia. Ignore them. This fellow has talent.

And after all, Kamui Kobayashi didn’t set the world aflame in GP2, did he?

Why not just make it legal?

Alonso and Massa: Let the sulking begin! Photo by Darren Heath

"Yeah, whatever…" Photo by Darren Heath

In the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s brouhaha over team orders I started writing a blog post entitled The dreary face of orchestration in which I fully intended to lambast the hideousness of it all. I never got around to finishing it; not because I’m a lazy git, but because I got caught up in a whole load of other work*, which gave me pause for sober reflection.

That Formula 1 is a business as well as a sport is a truism we all have to accept, since without the presence of global brands and their cash injections F1 simply wouldn’t be sustainable in its current form. That said, Sunday’s events perfectly illustrate the philosophical chasm that separates the insiders from the fans. Simply put, not one of the business people and team figures I’ve spoken to since Sunday saw anything wrong with what Ferrari did. Conversely, the fans – if you exclude the zealot types who’d have approved of it even if Fernando had run over half the queue for the school bus en route to the chequered flag – were outraged by the sheer cynicism of the manoeuvre.

Alonso passes Massa, and the controversy begins… Photo by Darren Heath

Alonso passes Massa, and the controversy begins… Photo by Darren Heath

From a purely pragmatic point of view, instructing Felipe Massa to let Fernando Alonso past had its merits. Alonso was 31 points ahead of Massa in the drivers’ championship and 47 behind Lewis Hamilton. Now put your calculators away and close down your spreadsheets. On an F1 pitwall, what matters is what works – now, not next week or next month. It doesn’t matter that Alonso may get run over by a bus (or, heaven forfend, actually be on a private plane that clips a building), thereby eliminating him from the rest of the season and causing Ferrari to rue the day they orchestrated the swap. In the heat of a grand prix, the future is another country. Possible championship permutations that may come about if three hens lay addled eggs? They may as well be in the horoscopes column.

So Ferrari made the choice. We all saw it coming, telegraphed well in advance like a ham-fisted soap opera twist. The FOM TV director knew it, bringing his camera to bear on the moist eyes and thoughtful mien of Rob Smedley as he prepared to push the button and deliver the instruction. This in itself was an act of pure opportunism in a dull grand prix that needed an injection of drama; they must have been whooping and high-fiving in the TV compound as the gift arrived…

The print media greeted it with a curious mix of outrage and glee: fury because most of them are, at heart, fans; joy because it brought something interesting to write about other than tyre degradation. The hunt for quotes began; as usual, Saint Martin of Whitmarsh delivered himself promptly to a microphone, but only to demur rather than condemn. He would, he said, speak privately to Ferrari about the matter, but make no public comment about it.

Joy on the podium – before the British media clamp their teeth round his ankles… Photo by Darren Heath

Joy on the podium – before the British media clamp their teeth round his ankles… Photo by Darren Heath

After all the posturing – including the absurd charade in which everyone from Ferrari continued to pretend that nothing untoward had happened – a number of insiders (Martin Brundle, Ross Brawn, David Coulthard, etc) have come out in support of team orders. Are they mad? Are they stupid? Are they corrupt? No, just so far ‘in’ that they’ve grown out of touch. They fail to appreciate that for the fans – the demographic these people deride for being naïve – Formula 1 is an emotional investment. You don’t choose a favourite team or driver as passionlessly as you might select a new fridge.

By the by, though, I wonder if they have a point. Perhaps teams should be allowed some leeway – not to use one or other of their drivers to block a rival, but at least to give one precedence over another when vital championship points are at stake. If they wish to do this – and if they don’t care what the fans think – then so be it. As my old English teacher, Mrs Lucock, was wont to say about essays handed in late: “It’s your funeral…”

For if teams don’t value your support – why should you give it to them? Invest your emotional capital elsewhere. Let ennui and ambivalence achieve what angry protest cannot.

*checking the facts and dates of a load of 1960s sportscar and non-championship F1 races in the LAT Archive for a future book project, although I had a brief diversion via a 1965 John Bolster article in AUTOSPORT entitled THINGS I HATE! Judging by the contents he hated rather a lot, since you ask..

The safety dance

You can still hear the wails of anguish from Maranello this morning, but what’s done is done. The Safety Car intervention almost certainly prevented Fernando Alonso from finishing on the podium of the European Grand Prix. Alonso certainly felt that way, and having spent the balance of the race seething in his cockpit he rather petulantly suggested that the result had been deliberately “manipulated”.

Absolute bunkum, of course. Such a thing would require planning – and, above all, a motive. All we have is opportunity and effect; in any case, when two cars come together as violently as Mark Webber’s and Heikki Kovalainen’s did, the FIA’s race director has rather more important tasks to perform before he can get around to plotting Ferrari’s demise (I may be wrong, and it may be a great big conspiracy after all – sadly, my tinfoil hat is away being cleaned).

So, rather than entertaining these absurd notions or second-guessing the competence of the race director, Charlie Whiting, perhaps we should consider the role of the Safety Car itself. What should its philosophy be?

What I mean is this: should the deployment of the Safety Car be allowed to influence the outcome of the race, over and above the inevitable effect of closing up the field?

In this regard you can divide motor racing into two distinct camps. In sportscars, where multiple classes are racing at once, competitors have grown accustomed to the inadvertent distortions a Safety Car deployment can create. It comes out, it does its job, and if your car is on the wrong piece of road at the wrong time and gets caught out, tough luck. The best sportscar teams have evolved strategies to turn Safety Car deployments to their advantage – or at least to minimise the disadvantage.

On the other side of the fence – predominantly in US racing – the full-course yellow has become part of the entertainment portfolio. How often have you watched a NASCAR race and witnessed the peculiar phenomenon of a minor incident late in the race being used as an excuse to “throw a yellow” and artificially close up the field, thereby guaranteeing an exciting finish?

The most difficult and controversial aspect of any Safety Car deployment is the business of picking up the leader during the initial scramble. True to form, in Sunday’s race the leader – Sebastian Vettel – was already several seconds up the road when the Safety Car emerged. Second-placed Lewis Hamilton was passing the pit exit at the time and vacillated over whether to pass the Safety Car; by the time he’d done so the SC had crossed the white line, rendering the move illegal. Alonso and Felipe Massa were then stuck behind the Safety Car while Vettel and Hamilton were free to press on to the pitlane (‘free’ in the sense that they still had to observe a mandatory lap time, which several other competitors didn’t).

In order for the Safety Car to have as little impact as possible on the outcome of the race, one of two things then had to happen: either the race director would have had to contact McLaren and Red Bull and order them to have Hamilton and Vettel slow down and allow themselves to be passed by the Safety Car; or the car would have had to wait at the pit exit for another lap and then pick up Vettel. The former option was do-able, at a push (but if this were to become an official policy, what would happen if one of the drivers in question was out of radio contact?). The latter option just doesn’t bear thinking about.

When a serious accident occurs, racing must stop immediately. The deployment of the Safety Car cannot be put ‘on hold’ for fear that someone may lose out. Tough luck. Don’t blame the FIA, blame the dingbat who put their car in the wall. Or, better still, don’t blame anyone at all. Just get over it.

That said, I’d love to know why 12 laps elapsed before Lewis Hamilton was investigated for passing the Safety Car…